“Jazz is Paris and Paris is jazz,” spoke-sang Malcolm McLaren a quarter-century ago, though the statement is valid as ever today: Since the end of World War I, when a number of African American soldiers settled in Paris — and still others left their music behind — the city has become a kind of world capital for jazz, with clubs still packing in audiences around town. “The Eddy” is named for one such dive, located in a neighborhood far from the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and other historic sites where Audrey Hepburn twirled in “Funny Face.”
The new eight-part Netflix series, reverse-engineered from a raft of stellar jazz songs by “Jagged Little Pill” producer Glen Ballard, aims to show audiences a different side of Paris from the touristy one mass-produced on picture postcards. It’s the part of the city where North African immigrants and descendants of France’s fraught colonial history are pushed into ugly high-rises on the wrong side of the tracks. In this case, the “tracks” are la Petite Ceinture, the beltlike railway that cuts off the chic city center from the rougher neighborhoods where not everyone speaks French — convenient for a show in which the two main characters are an American father-daughter pair, played by André Holland (“Moonlight”) and Amandla Stenberg (“The Hate U Give”).
The first two episodes, both directed by “La La Land’s” Damien Chazelle and unveiled in the Berlin Film Festival’s TV strand (a full 10 weeks ahead of the show’s May 8 release), center on a grubby club in the 13th arrondissement, where the half-French director spent a decent part of his childhood. Chazelle knows this terrain, foregrounding its texture — the diverse residents, street-hustle attitude and graffitied walls — in a way that makes audiences feel like they’re witnessing the “real Paris.”
To some degree, they are. The vérité-styled show was lensed on location. Like the pianist setting the key for his ensemble to follow, Chazelle’s opening chapters were shot on 16mm film (a first for Netflix) by Olivier Assayas collaborator Eric Gautier, using a jumpy handheld aesthetic that’s as deeply indebted to John Cassavetes as it is to the French New Wave. It’s improvisational, the way that jazz is, swishing from one corner of the frame to the other to document the energy of music as it’s being made, and the result doesn’t look like TV so much as the raw footage from some work-in-progress concert doc.
That said, English screenwriter Jack Thorne is a veteran of the medium (better known in the States for handling Broadway’s hit “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” adaptation, he cut his teeth on series like “Shameless” and “Skins”), and his job is to thread a handful of banal soap-opera-like storylines between the show’s live music performances. There is a lot of music in “The Eddy”: rehearsals and jam sessions, auditions and open-mic nights, concerts and spontaneous scenes where Holland’s Elliot either sits down at a piano or picks up his trumpet to noodle a few notes.
Elliot, as we come to understand over the course of a first episode focused primarily on him, is a New Yorker who left his wife and kids — one of whom is now dead, while the other is what we’d call “at risk” — to co-manage a jazz club in Paris. His business partner, Farid (Tahar Rahim of “A Prophet” is the country’s young De Niro), handles the books, while Elliot focuses on the music, which is a risky arrangement when a menacing debt collector comes around looking to get paid. Elliot’s a stressful character to watch, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and hopped up on his own anxiety.
Julie, to whom the second episode will be dedicated, arrives at Charles de Gaulle with a single carry-on bag, into which she’s packed her clarinet, some clothes and years of resentment. The former is more a prop than an instrument at this point in the show, while the latter doesn’t take long to reveal itself: Enrolled in an international school and obliged to wear a neat blue blazer and skirt, she rebuffs the friendship of Irish classmate Beatrice (Liah O’Prey) and prefers to cut class, running around with Sim (Adil Dehbi), the French-Algerian rapper who works at the Eddy.
The club is the hub around which all the characters’ lives revolve, and where one of them ends abruptly about half an hour in. It’s a hard loss to take for the audience, since that person was the ensemble’s most promising — although a future episode could flash back, since each one appears to be centered on a different person. The characters struggle to accept it, too, and yet Elliot insists on opening the club that very night. The place is deserted at first. “Somebody was killed here. Of course nobody comes,” says torch singer and ex-flame Maja (“Cold War” discovery Joanna Kulig), with whom there’s much unresolved business. But the people do come. And by the end of that night, as Maja beautifully delivers a number that we’ve seen blossom from a few simple chords, Elliot marvels that it’s the “first time I’ve seen the place full.”
Chazelle’s fans will recognize an even greater payoff, because “The Eddy” builds on themes and motifs the director’s been working since his jazzy black-and-white debut, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” a decade earlier. Those who swooned for “La La Land” may be slightly less charmed, as “The Eddy” feels like the opposite of that musical fantasy: It’s gritty and giddy and in no way inclined to provide the sort of Technicolor view of Paris that he previously paid to the City of Angels. We glimpse the Eiffel Tower just once, far in the distance. And when Julie hits what we hope is rock bottom, she winds up scouring rough parks for cocaine, not contemplating suicide on one of the city’s more scenic bridges. That would be romantic. This isn’t.
But Chazelle is just band leader to a quartet of directors, and series co-creator Alan Poul (“Tales of the City”) takes over from here, with additional episodes helmed by “Divines” director Houda Benyamina and Moroccan-born Laïla Marrakchi. Elliot lives and works alongside a number of French-Algerian characters, including Farid’s wife Amira (Leïla Bekhti), and though many were born in Paris, they’re treated as even more foreign than the show’s English-speaking black characters in their home country. That’s a subject worth exploring in the hours ahead.
For the time being, “The Eddy” seems more interested in the music, and why shouldn’t it be? Ballard has written some terrific pieces, which feel as though they belong to an earlier era, when jazz composers were deconstructing the idea of music itself. Delivered by real musicians (whereas Holland and Stenberg took lessons), the band’s performances feel electric, swarming and overwhelming the story at times, as in the “Goodfellas”-esque opening scene, a five-minute “oner” that seems to explore every corner of the club. The raggedly structured episodes run more than an hour apiece, mostly because the editors can’t live without the jazz, though audiences won’t be as patient.
“The Eddy” is told in broken Frenglish, as characters communicate in a mix of two languages (with subtitled Arabic thrown in for good measure), butchering both in the process. The show seems equally divided between whether it wants to be a live chronicle of Ballard’s music or a boilerplate father-daughter reconciliation tale, spiced up with exotic locations and a soupcon of criminal intrigue. For a record of Ballard’s music, buy the record. For the rest, future episodes will have to put the characters first.